Stories are still trickling in from major damage zones across the south. Disturbing tales of personal failures and the greater breakdown of government in the face of unconscionable disaster roll in with the grim faces of the haggard, the beaten—and the progressively more faithless.
"I've seen old people die. I've seen little kids get raped," said New Orleans music producer Will Robinson, now homeless and sleeping "wherever I can lay my head."
Robinson could be found waiting in a line of hundreds early Sept. 23, lingering in the hopes of getting some kind of sustenance. He says he'd been waiting at the Red Cross location in the city's TradeMart on the fairgrounds since 3:30 that morning.
The music producer and his immediate family of seven are strewn about the South in places like Alabama, Texas and locations yet to be discovered as Robinson is still searching for them. All were separated when they were airlifted from the roof of their home in a one-person basket dangling from a Coast Guard helicopter. Robinson's six-hour wait this time netted him a ticket number and instructions by Red Cross officials that he and the rest of his line would have to return Oct. 22, a month from today, for further processing.
"If I don't get any money, I guess I'll just have to sleep out here again," he grumbled wearily before unleashing a round of venom at the American president. "What I want to ask the world and the president is how are you going to wage war in two countries, at one time, but you can't take care of this civilian population—which ain't much compared to the money they spent invading peoples' countries and looking for weapons of mass destruction that never turned up! Why can't they put that much effort into making sure our lives are worth living?"
'This Is a Damn Joke'
The frustration is everywhere.
"You call this (Red Cross) number, and this is a damn joke!" screamed New Orleans resident Linda Muhammad, a former Red Cross worker from New Orleans, now a displaced evacuee herself, dependent upon the generosity of others. "They keep telling you to go away and go away, and one day we will just go away, just like they want! I am a registered nurse for the American Red Cross, and I have been for years, and now I'm told to go away! I don't know what I'm supposed to do now! I've lost everything that we had!"
Victims of the more recent Hurricane Rita are also prevalent in the crowd of Katrina evacuees. Dwight LeReuex was the prey of both. One month ago, LeReuex was building casinos for a living. Then a few weeks ago the entire casino economy floating on the Mississippi Coast was lifted up on a hurricane swell and dashed into buildings further inland. He and his family lost everything. The family fled to Galveston, Texas, and used their dwindling savings to get an apartment—only to evacuate it weeks later as Rita took her turn pounding the coast.
"We left Galveston yesterday," LeReuex said, shaking his head miserably. "We only left because we had no choice. They said we had to evacuate. The only reason we came here to Jackson was because they told us that they'd have the coliseum back open for everybody, and they ain't got a thing open. They ain't got a bed to sleep in or nothing."
Some among the early crowd of storm victims were already familiar with homelessness. Numerous members of New Orleans' transient population fled the city with the same resolve as everyone else when stinking floodwaters began creeping out of the sewers.
Rex Baker, executive director of Gateway Rescue Mission in Jackson, said many of New Orleans' transients have since made their way into countless private shelters around the city. It is the churches, say Red Cross officials, which have opened their doors to the deluge of flood victims who have continued to linger in Jackson, even as the rains brought by Hurricane Rita inundate their already water-logged homes a second time. Last Friday, rainwater rose just enough to overtop the delicate levee system only recently repaired.
"This is going to be a problem that's going to be here for some time," said Baker, whose shelter can hold about 50 people a night. "It's not going to go away in the next couple of weeks. The levees have broken again in New Orleans, and we've got evacuees coming in out of Texas. Still, we've had a lot of donations of supplies from all over the region."
But The Fair Is Coming
The Red Cross center at the Mississippi Trade Mart closed its doors Sept. 23 as officials relocated services to the JSSA Liquidating Trust Building, at 3800 Frontage Road in Jackson, where evacuees can continue their search for financial assistance.
Christine Olds, public affairs officer for the Jackson Red Cross operation, said the pressure was on to relocate the center. The Mississippi State Fair is slated to dominate the fairgrounds soon without any rescheduling.
"There was some political pushing and shoving that occurred back and forth, but basically we just said we're not going to leave here until we have our clients all placed," Olds said. "There was a bit of a power struggle. I'm from Las Vegas, and I wasn't that familiar with the political climate when I got down here three weeks ago, but things are different here."
Olds did not describe the political jostling as outright antagonism of Red Cross efforts, but admitted that there was plenty of miscommunication.
"People are having the best intentions, but they're not knowing how things need to work—at least in the Red Cross world. You can't just say 'you're going to close this shelter tomorrow.' You have to give our clients alternate places to go. I think some people think 'well, I'm in charge of such and such so I'm in charge of the Red Cross,' but the Red Cross is not a government entity."
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton attempted to take matters into his own hands Sept. 6 when he marched evacuees into Red Cross headquarters, directly through Red Cross lines filled with other impatient, short-tempered hurricane victims.
"We appreciate the mayor's effort on our behalf. We really do, but every organization has rules and regulations and how they operate, and it's helpful when other people realize that," Olds said.
Melton to the Rescue?
Melton, still looking to improve matters for the long, impossible lines at Red Cross centers, opened an assistance center last week at the Champion Community Center and announced that Jackson is "opening up any and all city facilities to make sure that (evacuees) are comfortable—every last gymnasium in Jackson, the Thalia Mara Hall, the Alamo Theatre, if necessary."
The new processing center at Champion's Gym, manned by 30 Red Cross-trained city employees, will help only city residents affected by Hurricane Katrina. The idea, says Melton, is to shorten processing time by separating Jackson residents from out of state evacuees.
"I'm not going to have people standing in long lines to get to the door to get a ticket that says come back next month," Melton said at a Sept. 23 press briefing. "The problem is now."
Olds said the mayor's idea makes only a slight difference, however, because the city-run center can only take evacuee information and pass it along to the American Red Cross. "I'm not thinking that would be any kind of assistance where we would be expediting anything," Olds said. "I think it'll be better when we open the new service center because there will be more case workers there and people will go at a faster pace."
Melton also announced a crackdown on fraudulent claims at the Friday briefing. Melton was seen entering the Red Cross Trade Mart Center early Sept. 23.
"I'm standing there looking at dope dealers right there in the line," Melton announced, outraged. "I don't know what their justification is supposed to be, but I've instructed the Jackson Police Department that if they're in line on a fraudulent basis, they're to be arrested and charged either federally through the state, or the city of Jackson."
Normally, the Red Cross sends damage assessment people to the homes of people claiming damage. Due to the historic influx of hurricane victims, however, the organization took to handing out client assistance cards.
"The thought was that for every person trying to scam us there are at least 10 or more in desperate need," said Olds, pointing out that damages must be assessed now prior to awards. The Red Cross, last week, also stopped offering money to people who claimed to have lost food due to the storm.
Olds said she had reservations about the Jackson mayor and the JPD snatching fraud suspects from the line, however good their intentions.
"It's not in our power to stop him, but it's not something we would encourage. Just stopping people before they get into the facility based on what may or may not be correct information would not be something we would support," Olds said.